Historically, I've done a *lot* of direct customer and partner interaction. I've always found that you can't fully appreciate what's really going on in the IT marketplace unless you spend a lot of time with the people that matter. Reading analyst reports (no matter how good) can only get you so far :)
All this frequent interaction gives me the opportunity to spot subtle yet persistent shifts in the gestalt of enterprise IT.
Good news: I've started to regularly encounter an entirely new class of post-transformational IT leadership team. They recognized the need for substantive change a while back. They knew what needs to be done, and took on the hard work involved. Their journey was not an easy one.
But -- and here's the good part -- they're visibly moving ahead on a wide variety of initiatives, and clearly starting to reposition the IT function from a cost-center to a value generator.
And we, as vendor/partners, are inevitably starting to adjust our engagement model around their new reality.
Anytime I sit in front of an IT group for the first time, I spend the first few minutes trying to size up where they are, and classifying them in one of three buckets:
Classical IT -- recognized by a silo-ed organization structure, IT processes designed for the benefit of IT and not the business, and a preference for an old-school customer/vendor relationship.
Transitioning IT -- a disconcerting recognition that the enterprise IT model is shifting, and early discussions and effort to begin to move in a different direction.
Enabled IT -- a visible transition to an ITaaS model, with multiple initiatives supporting the newer digital business models: mobile, big data analytics, cloud, app factories, cloud, next-gen security, etc.
Rare is the customer who fits precisely into any one of these categories (especially in larger organizations), but you can get a sense of where the center of gravity rests, and adjust appropriately.
The Classical IT Mindset
This group buys products from vendors.
Every product is ruthlessly compared against other similar products often with a self-generated set of criteria.
Any vendor's product is always too expensive, short on features, reviewed unfavorably by some online publication, could be supported better, and needs to have many more freebies associated with it. The purchasing and procurement team is always in the room.
Any discussion around potential process change is not popular, no matter what the benefits might be. The rallying cry of "avoid vendor lock in" precludes meaningful standardization and mandates high operational costs.
When I am with these groups (and there are many, many of them out there) I have to spend 95% of my time talking about the things they think are important, and maybe I can get away with spending 5% of my time talking about the potential next phase of their evolution. Unless there is serious disruption in their world, they have no incentive to even consider doing things differently.
So we talk about things like speeds and feeds, feature sets, unique technologies, comparison charts vs. competitive alternatives -- you know, all the things you'd typically expect a vendor to do. Personally, I don't invest a lot of time with these folks, as we have plenty of people at EMC who know how to do that sort of thing, and they do it quite well.
The Transitioning IT Mindset
It's very easy to spot when an IT organization is starting to transition.
Generally speaking, there are three things I look for:
- A meaningful change in the business strategy which is forcing a change in the IT approach. This could be a sharp downturn in business, new competitors, new products or markets, global expansion, a new CEO, big M&A -- there are all sorts of potential drivers that are easy to discern. The reason I look for this is simple: without a meaningful change in the business, there's little incentive for IT to change its ways.
- A critical mass of empowered IT leadership. This could be either a cadre of new faces near the top, a rapid promotion of a few key folks up the ranks, or a combination of both. This will be uncomfortable, but it has to be said: familiar faces in familiar roles tend to make familiar decisions. That's human nature.
- A reasonable starting point for doing things differently: IT leadership engaged, resources that can be allocated, several candidate use cases, the potential of splitting a separate team off of the main IT function to race ahead, and so on. Discerning this state of affairs takes a bit of questioning, but I can usually get to it pretty quickly.
Very often, the first two are already in place, and the last bit needs to be assembled from the pieces that are already embedded in the organization.
Since I have the privilege of meeting the same customer groups over multiple years, I have seen literally hundreds clearly move from the first category to the second.
I've now come to think of this evolution as adolescence -- sooner or later, it happens to everyone. It's a bit crazy when it first starts, but the world is a better place after you've gone through it.
The Enabled IT Mindset
I only have several handfuls of data points on this one (it's relatively new), but here are the markers I've been able to pick up on.
- An established organizational and business model that is more akin to an IT service provider vs. a traditional enterprise IT approach.
- A clear go-to-market function, showback or chargeback in place, easy-to-consume services, major investment in continual process improvement using the voice of the customer, and a bias towards standardized platforms consumed as a service.
- Three or more funded initiatives that support a digital business model: mobile, app factory, social, big data analytics, next gen security, cloud, information platform, etc.
It's wonderful to meet with these groups. Not only are the conversations much more interesting, but the IT leadership team radiates a unique confidence in their ability to deliver unique value back to the organizations they serve.
Truly happy IT professionals are a scarce breed; these folks are clearly enjoying themselves.
How This Changes My Conversation
My view is that -- as a vendor -- every customer or partner meeting should start with the inevitable "how can we help?". I like it because it always starts the conversation off in a useful direction: what problems are you trying to solve, and why?
For the classical IT organizations, it's almost always a product-focused discussion: we have challenges with X, Y and Z -- how can your products help us better than the alternatives? And not force us to change the way we've always done things?
For the transitioning IT organizations, it's a learning-focused discussion: they've started to change, and they want to hear about how others have been successful with what they're starting to face.
Help us understand how best to think about the problem, and devise a practical way forward given the constraints we're dealing with. Fortunately, that's a familiar discussion for us to have these days.
For the post-transitional enabled IT groups, the focus moves farther out -- what are you guys thinking about down the road? These groups usually have a good idea of our current capabilities (and those of our competition), so we don't spend too much time on reviewing what's already out there.
They want us to look out over the obvious horizons. They really want to know where EMC is placing its bets around the future: key investments, emergent models, ecosystem engagement and the like.
Maybe they won't entirely agree with what we're working on, but they do want to know how EMC/VMware/Pivotal views the fast-moving world of enterprise IT tech, and how we're backing up those views with specific investments.
You might think this is about specific product roadmaps. It's not. It's more about themes and hypotheses about the future of enterprise IT and the industry that serves it.
They are not well-served by standard corporate "vision" slides unless you can hang an awful lot of meat off those typically thin frameworks. They are annoyed by broad (and familiar) proclamations that "the world is going mobile" or "everything is going to cloud" unless you can dive three levels deeper and bring some unique perspective and resulting implications to the table. Half of their interest in is technology; the other half is in ecosystem, business models and novel ways of deconstructing and reconstructing technology-based value propositions.
Heady stuff, indeed. It forces me to bring my very best game, and -- sometimes -- it's still not good enough for the most demanding.
But I'm certainly trying.